Scott Turow’s been called the king of legal thriller writers – with 30 million books in print, many made into memorable movies, but as his latest work shows, The Last Trial, he should be called a “novelist.” In the old-fashioned, big theme sense of the word. His books -- suspenseful, complex, filled with heady content and dramatic exchanges –are always timely, and none more so than The Last Trial, given the race to discover a vaccine against Covid-19.
The plot of The Last Trial involves allegations against the chief scientist and CEO of a Big Pharma company who’s accused of altering data about fatalities in a hot new cancer drug study. The CEO is also charged with insider trading, and murder because it’s alleged that even as he learned about several late allergic reactions to the drug, he kept it going, knowing that some patients taking it might die.
The Last Trial shows Turow at his most philosophical, and meticulous about research. He writes in an acknowledgements page that the regulatory framework that governs clinical trials and approval of new medications is insanely complicated. The novel also shows him as a risk-taking fiction writer because he features a character here who has appeared in his books before but now emerges as the protagonist. An 85-year-old defense lawyer and two-time widower, Alejandro Stern, or Sandy, about to retire. And none too soon. A brief prologue has him collapsing in the courtroom.
Sandy slyly calls himself “a dotty old man,” don’t believe it. He does have metastatic disease and has been treated by his decades-old good friend 78,Dr. Kiril Pafko, , a Nobel Laureate in medicine, a distinguished cancer researcher and CEO of an eponymous world-renowned company that has made him rich and famous. But now surprisingly Kiril’s in trouble, charged with fraud, and worse, personally and professionally. Of course, he will have no one defend him but Sandy, much to the consternation of Sandy’s sharp-as-a-tack law partner and daughter Marta and his beloved punk granddaughter who adores him. Great secondary characters here by the way.
The richness of The Last Trial extends beyond the courtroom scenes which on their own compel attention – exciting third-person, present-tense interactions and interruptions involving the prosecution, the presiding judge – another old friend of Sandy– and the defense. As the narrative evolves, however, the question shifts from Is he guilty? to How well do we really know those closest to us, partners, children, dear friends? And the subsequent question: How well do we really know ourselves, or want to know ourselves or want to know ourselves?
Turow’s’ flawed central characters are admirable because they seek justice, even as they know that “perfect justice” does not exist.” But they persevere because they see the Law as a civilizing force. Turow’s prose, smart and straightforward without affectation, achieves elegance in its impassioned commitment to our judicial way of life. As Sandy says, “The law is erected on many fictions,” the falsest one of all probably that “humans, in the end, are rational.” But the Law is “humanity’s sanctuary, where we retreat from unreason” and thus “there is no better cause to champion.” To which one can only say, Amen.
Now, go figure who should play whom in the movie.